For the first minute or so there’s nothing but melancholic acoustic guitar and a far away harmonica. It’s moving, deeply moving. Then comes Bill Callahan’s voice, and you’re utterly invested. By the time he released A River Ain’t Too Much to Love in 2005, Callahan has been recording under the identity of Smog since the late 80s, issuing pretty indie-folk albums which appealed to our more downbeat nature. Albums like this one.
From the first couple of tracks, you get the impression that A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is not an album to rock out to, get folks heading for the dance floor, or even to be played as background music to a particularly bijou dinner party. This is an album to be played in quiet, reflective moments, usually when you’re on your own and you might feel the need to do a bit of soul searching. It’s not all self-pitying moping though, as it’s studded with songs like “The Well”, a seven minute assessment of his interaction with a well, where Jim White’s drums add a sense of weird propulsion that is utterly fitting for such an idiosyncratic subject.
What is impressive throughout A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is Callahan’s ability to squeeze the appropriate amount of emotion out of his songs, exercising just the right amount of restraint to prevent him from going over the top and dragging you out of the song. Hence, this is an album where he is sad, but not in despair. Regretful, but not angry. Frustrated, but not furious. Some of us are cautious with our emotions, and Callahan understands this, and it simply begs the question why more acts don’t take this approach.
A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is one of those releases where the individual songs are great, and often brilliant, but ultimately they are best listened to in the context of the whole album, where the lengthier tracks like “The Well” and closer “Let Me See the Colts”, are balanced perfectly by shorter numbers like “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” and “Drinking at the Dams”. This is something that usually only comes with years of experience and hard-earned restraint, but it’s wonderfully executed on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.
This is an album which benefits from being heard in an isolated, enclosed space, preferably through headphones. While some albums carry universal messages for all, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is seemingly aimed at the sole, individual listener. It is subtle, textured and engaging, but its impact is hugely lessened if it does not have your full undivided attention. Not that it isn’t still a fine album in that scenario, it’s just you get a whole lot more out of it if you’re prepared to invest your own time into it.
A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was the last Smog album, as Bill Callahan opted to record under his own name going forward, and he continues to record great music to this day. This was my first experience with his music, but on the strength of this album and the few other songs I have heard, it certainly won’t be my last.